Reply to Tom Sterbens on Christianity and Politics

Tom Sterbens initiated an interesting discussion on Christianity and politics on MissionalCOG.  His “wrap” on it is as follows:

Do you think that the general disposition of the evangelical community (concerning the potential of Obama being president) is reflective of the same consciousness when Clinton was elected to office?

Do you see it as fear filled?

Peter says, “…fear God, honor the king.” Do you think that perhaps we may get it backwards…”fear the king and honor God?”

For years I have heard and read that 95% of Christians have never lead anyone to Christ (I think I first read it a hundred years ago from Elmer Towns?)…yet I am amazed at how easily we (evangelicals) will get amped up over the political atmosphere.

Since I spend a lot of time on the political–especially during an election cycle–I think some explanation as to why I do and take the stance I have is in order.

IMHO, there are two basic approaches to Christian involvement in the political sphere in the US.

The first is the theonomistic approach, where we posit that, at one time in recent memory, this country was completely “under God” and that our duty is to re-establish that reign.  Without rehashing a lot of what I’ve already said, I don’t think there’s anyone alive who lived in such a country.  When the Moral Majority started to move in the late 1970’s, we had already lost large portions of the élite to our idea.  Our refusal to recognise that has led to the general failure of that political agenda, as is abundantly clear in this election cycle.

The second is what I call the “level playing field” approach.  By getting the state church/religion out of the mix, we created a level playing field that encouraged the growth of churches such as ours.  Behind such a scenario is the recognition that the state isn’t the highest power, an inherently theistic concept, as I noted almost seven years ago:

We said at the start that any Christian organisation worth its salt proclaims that God’s authority is above any human government.  That too is not to the liberals’ taste; they speak of freedom, but by putting the government at the top of human society they guarantee that freedom will sooner or later go away.  When the Ten Commandments are posted in our courthouses and other public places, it is a reminder that there is in fact a God who is higher than our government and other institutions, our final appeal when we are oppressed and our help when our own government turns against us.  Eliminating that appeal — and that is something the liberals ultimately cannot do — will make us slaves to whatever power holder gets to the top.

This approach in our current climate doesn’t always have a great deal of traction, as I found out three years ago:

There are several different issues involved in the whole question of religion in the public schools, but I felt that this (freedom of religious speech and student activity) was the most important, and in some ways the strongest from the standpoint of the current law. The responses varied. Some had little experience with problems in this regard, others were aware of these decisions and were happy to allow this kind of expression. A couple of the responses were a little too “politically correct” from my point of view, either showing an obsession with “coercion” by student activity (which is amazing considering that coercion is the lifeblood of the state) or showing a little too much satisfaction that formal graduation prayers were prohibited. (Neither of these candidates made the cut.)

The responses illustrated a point I made in Expelling God from School: superintendents and boards generally reflect the values of the communities from which they are drawn. The main reason for this is because most school boards are elected from those communities, and the superintendents chosen by the board.

This illustrates the importance of public involvement—and the involvement of Christians concerned with the course of their communities and nation—in processes such as this. Having said that, I was surprised to find myself “carrying the ball” on these issues. The Committee was supportive of me in that effort, and for that I am grateful. But in a community with as strong of a Christian base as this one, with a position as important as this one, and considering that all of our meetings and interviews were open to the public, the minimal open interest by Christian groups who are otherwise engaged in the life of this county was disconcerting.

But I think that it is the best one, after all this time.

Cutting to the chase, it is my opinion–based on both personal knowledge of our élites and their public positions–that Evangelical Christianity, as we know it in the U.S., is fundamentally unprepared to operate in a society where economic and religious freedoms are restricted.  I include economic, not only because of the ability for churches to hold property as a support for their ministry work (a two-edged sword at best) but because Evangelicals have tied their presentation of the Gospel to upward social mobility.  When that is lost in a society where upward advancement is conditioned on running through a cursus honorum closely defined by those at the top, our appeal will be lost too.  In the long run that will translate into lost souls.

Personally, I find that rather strange, although there is good New Testament background as to why this is so.  Christianity, for me, is attractive because this world’s systems are inherently flawed and unfair, and that the world’s attempts to fix them (especially socialistic ones, although our market crash shows that there’s blame aplenty to go around) only make things worse.  But I’ve found over the last quarter century in the Church of God I’m in a serious minority on this issue.

One of the big differences between us and the New Testament church is that we get, from time to time, to choose our king.  If that is abridged, either operatively or formally, then it’s a whole new ball game for us.  I think that abridgement is a real possibility in this election (with some support for that idea, thanks, Kevin.)

Is that what we really want?

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